By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
EDGEWATER, N.J. -- Gospel and soul artist and celebrity mom Cissy Houston had never planned to add author to her resume.
But then, Houston hadn't expected that her famous daughter would die at 48, leaving behind a legacy of both enormous success and avidly documented struggles and posing questions that were, in her mother's view, being addressed by the wrong people.
"Everyone was writing crap about Whitney," says Houston, 79. "I was reading things that weren't true, and that's when I decided that I needed to do something."
Cissy doesn't mince words on the page, either. Her book, Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss and the Night the Music Stopped(HarperCollins), written with Lisa Dickey, arrives Tuesday. It offers a portrait of Whitney Houston as a loving daughter, sister and mother, a meticulous musician and a consummate professional who never took her achievements or her blessings for granted.
But Remembering Whitney also explores, often with surprising frankness, more troubled aspects of the pop superstar's life and career, from her drug abuse to her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown. Cissy remembers visiting her daughter in the hospital after she required surgery for a two-inch gash in her cheek, suffered while she was on a cruise with Brown. The couple "swore up and down later that it was just a freak accident," the result of Brown slamming his fist down while "acting out about something," sending a china shard flying.
There's also a harrowing account of Cissy arriving at the couple's Atlanta home accompanied by two sheriff's deputies and armed with a court injunction to retrieve Whitney for rehab: "I was shaking with emotion, holding the piece of paper out toward her ... She just stood there looking at me. The light had gone out of her eyes, and my baby looked so, so tired."
"Nippy," the affectionate nickname by which Cissy refers to her daughter, "was better than anybody I know at keeping her stuff private -- at least, private from me," she writes at one point. And later: "I'm still so angry -- at Nippy, at the world, at myself. There are days when the questions just consume me ... Was I a good mother? Was I too hard on her? And the worst one of all -- could I have saved her somehow?"
Sitting in a room off the lobby of her apartment building on a frigid January morning, Cissy doesn't convey a sense of anger -- or of fragility, for that matter. Greeting a visitor, she smiles brightly and seems fairly hardy for a near-octogenarian, even with a walking cane and a seasonal cold.
But asked, point-blank, what her life is like these days, she darkens. "Without my daughter ..." Her voice trails off. "It's still very new. I'm still in mourning. I don't think I'll ever be the same."
The book begins, as its title suggests, on Feb. 11, 2012, the day that Whitney was discovered lifeless in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where she had planned to attend the annual pre-Grammy Awards gala thrown that evening by her music industry mentor, Clive Davis. (The cause of death was determined to be accidental drowning, with heart disease and cocaine use cited as contributing factors.)
Cissy then takes us back to Whitney's birth and what preceded it: her own upbringing, as the youngest of eight children born to a mother who died when Cissy was eight and a strict father who guided her and several siblings in a gospel quartet; her subsequent career as a member of the noted backup outfit the Sweet Inspirations, which led to gigs supporting Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, as well as solo recordings; and her marriage to Whitney's father, John Houston, with whom she also had two sons, Gary and Michael.
Cissy acknowledges that Whitney's brothers both grappled with drugs as well -- Gary, the elder, as a youth, and Michael later, with his sister, to whom he was very close. And she is candid about the challenges she endured with John, who would manage both her career and Whitney's; he eventually divorced Cissy and married a younger woman, and in 2002 filed a $100 million lawsuit against Whitney, accusing her of not paying for services rendered. He died the following year.
"We always loved each other," Cissy says in conversation; but when the suit is mentioned, her tone quickly cools. "It was left kind of unresolved. I don't know why he did that -- greed, or his being controlling. But Whitney forgave him for it." Cissy pauses, and her eyes harden meaningfully.
"She forgave him."
She also expresses reservations in the book about Robyn Crawford, Whitney's longtime friend and sometime housemate and business associate. Cissy writes that upon meeting Crawford, she was taken aback by her "arrogance" and "abrasive" behavior, also noting, "As I would later learn, she was also gay, although that had nothing to do with why I didn't like her."
Cissy eventually came to appreciate Crawford's genuine concern for Whitney, though. When the subject comes up, she says simply, "Robyn was a friend." But she adds, "I get a pretty good take on people when I meet them, and sometimes -- I always wanted to protect Whitney from people, that's all. From a few other people, too."
That would obviously include New Edition star Brown, whom Cissy makes clear would not have been her first choice for a son-in-law. She writes that the dissolution of his marriage to Whitney, "just like with the drugs, wasn't all Bobby's fault," and that "deep down he was a good person." But there are numerous references to his run-ins with the law, abusive and manipulative behavior, and seeming resentment of the greater fame and deeper respect his wife generated.
Bobby Brown's lawyer, Chris Brown, told USA TODAY that the singer had no comment regarding the book.
"I don't think her husband was any good for her," Cissy says when Brown's name is raised. "I've said it before and I will say it again."
For Lisa Sharkey, senior vice president and director of creative development at HarperCollins, Cissy's publisher, the message of Remembering Whitney "is that when your child becomes a grown woman and a wife and mother, there's ultimately only so much you can do, as much as you may want to save her. The thing that blew me away was how hard Cissy worked to provide a great life and a loving home for her children, after having it rough as a kid herself."
Veteran music journalist Anthony DeCurtis, who worked with Clive Davis on his upcoming autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life, out Feb. 19, says Cissy is in a unique position to shed light on her daughter's accomplishments and hardships. "Even when very good reporters do stories, you can question their motives -- or the motives of the people speaking to them. This is Whitney Houston's mother, and someone who's both an important artist in her own life and played a very important role in her daughter's story."
Indeed, the book details how Cissy personally trained Whitney to sing in public, first at church and then with her mother at nightclub appearances. While Cissy believes that reports of her daughter's vocal deterioration later in her career were overblown, she admits that age and lifestyle may have been factors.
"You can't treat your voice badly and expect it to stay around," Cissy says. She believes that cigarettes, more than any other substance, were likely at fault. "The (harder) drugs didn't help, I'm sure. But smoking is the worst, for the voice. I used to smoke, too, but I gave it up."
Cissy also traces Whitney's own experiences as a mother to Bobbi Kristina Brown, now 19, whom her grandma calls Krissi.
"We hope and pray for Krissi," Cissy says. "She lives in Atlanta while I'm here in New Jersey, so I don't get to see her that often. And you know how 19-year-olds are -- you call them on the phone, and they don't always pick up. It's difficult. But she knows how much I love her."
Cissy appeared with her granddaughter on television last fall, in the Lifetime reality series The Houstons: On Our Own, which followed the family as it rebounded from Whitney's death. "That was really something my grandchildren did, and my daughter-in-law (Pat Houston, Gary's wife and Whitney's manager). But I was in it a little." (In the book, she deems Whitney's involvement in the 2005 reality show Being Bobby Brown "a mistake," noting, "I only watched part of one episode. That's all I could stand.")
Asked if she thinks Krissi will follow in her and Whitney's footsteps professionally, Cissy says, "I have no idea. Maybe she'll try it. I think she's a better actress than a musician. Whitney was both."
Remembering Whitney makes it plain that, among Cissy's children and grandchildren, her late daughter continues to occupy a special position. "I love my sons," Cissy writes, "but Nippy was the youngest, and a girl, and she was my heart."
Cissy reconfirms that in describing her wish for the book. She isn't bitter about the hand she's been dealt, she insists: "How can I be, when I have faith? My faith keeps me strong."
But "I want people to really have a sense of what a wonderful, giving person Whitney was," she says. "She made a lot of mistakes, but so many people have made mistakes, and haven't been treated like that -- with people talking about them, saying hurtful things that are or aren't true. I'm just trying to set everyone straight."